2022 archery bull. Photo credit: Chiam Loyd
Elk occupy a variety of habitats throughout the West, but the one commonality is that the areas are almost all physically demanding and require the dedicated bowhunter to cover ground on foot. Improper footwear can ruin an elk hunt quicker than almost any other piece of gear on your list, so it’s imperative that you have a quality pair of socks and boots that fit well and are broken in. Do not overlook sock selection. I would suggest a medium cushion/weight quality merino wool sock. Merino wool regulates temperature better, and is naturally moisture-wicking and antimicrobial, so it tends to smell much less than synthetic fabrics. My preference is to keep my socks inside my sleeping bag at night, which allows them to dry with my body heat every night. A quality pair of socks can be worn for several days without issues. A couple of my favorite options are made by Darn Tough and Farm to Feet.
There are a robust number of boots on the market, and everyone has unique feet and preferences in what they like in a boot. The take-home message regarding boots is that boots should be supportive, durable, and well broken in prior to your hunt. Elk country is generally steep. My advice would be to get a boot that has a three or four flex rating (as published in our GOHUNT Gear Shop Flex Guide). A relatively stiff-soled boot will support your ankles and your calves and feet will feel less fatigue over miles of ascent and descent in elk country. A couple more notes on boots: synthetic materials in a boot allow the boot to be lighter and more breathable, but the trade-off is that there are more seams that can be prone to leaks, and they wear out quicker. A leather boot is typically heavier; however, they are generally more waterproof and durable. My preference is a mostly seamless, uninsulated, all-leather boot, with a three to four flex rating. Get good boots and break them in well before your hunt.
Whether you are day hunting from a basecamp or embarking on a multi-day backpack hunt, a comfortable, durable backpack is key. The first question when picking a pack should be how big of a pack do I need? For day hunting, I suggest a pack with 1,800 to 3,600 cubic inches. For the weekend backpack hunter, I suggest 3,600 to 6,000 cubic inches. Moving into five to 10-day backpack hunts, I like packs in the 6,000 to 7,900 cubic inches range. A pack has to be durable. A torn shoulder strap, a broken buckle, a bent or broken frame or a zipper that goes out can significantly impact your effectiveness. A pack needs to be comfortable and fit well. Get a pack that fits your waist and torso height and has a load shelf since you will be packing heavy loads of meat. With hard work and some luck, you will end up hauling up to 225 pounds of meat. Make sure your pack fits well, is durable, and can handle the demands of packing a bull off the mountain. Some of the best packs on the market that I have had great success with are Stone Glacier, Mystery Ranch, Kifaru, and EXO.
For this section, I won’t dive into individual models or products. Rather, I’ll talk about factors I believe are critical. Your bow should fit you for both draw weight and draw length. Shooting high poundage is great for speed and penetration, but more importantly, you should be able to smoothly and quietly get to full draw. When a bull is coming in looking for a cow, he’s on alert. Your bow should be easy to draw every single time from a variety of shooting positions with a minimal amount of movement. If you can’t draw 70 to 80 pounds, get stronger or be honest with yourself and shoot lower poundage. The SwitchWeight Cams on Mathews bows allow you to easily swap out mods to adjust your draw weight without having to touch your limb bolts. Draw length is likely the most critical aspect in achieving good aim and accuracy. Shots on a bugling bull elk are almost always uphill, downhill or across a sidehill. Take the time to make sure your draw length is comfortable, allows you to reach and maintain a consistent anchor, and aims well in real-world shot scenarios. In the same vein, leveling your sight’s second and third axis is key. Level your sight’s axises and take time to shoot in your third axis. Besides miscalculations in range, a sloppy third axis is one of the biggest reasons hunters miss.
There is a healthy debate on the number of pins preferable for an elk hunting sight. Some like the field of view of a single or double pin, and others like to have multiple aiming points that three- and five-pin housings offer. My preference is a five-pin slider sight, and here’s why: when a bull approaches, he may go from 40 yards to 60 yards and back into 30 yards before ever offering you a shot, and all the while, he is looking for the cow that made those sweet sounds. In that scenario, taking the time to move your sight over and over again adds movement, noise, and stress. I prefer having five set pins for reference and then using the bottom pin as my floater should a longer follow-up shot be required. I try to dumb down the process as much as possible, meaning I try to reduce the stress load and make it as simple as I can while eliminating movement and noise. Check out bow sight options here.
Ensure that your bow is as quiet as you can make it. Eliminate any noise associated with drawing your arrow across the rest or broadheads rattling in a quiver. Lastly, put broadheads on every arrow you plan to hunt with and verify those with practice. Your fifth arrow in the quiver should hit the exact same spot as your first.
There are several methods to target and kill a mature bull elk: spot and stalk, ambush, or calling can all be effective, and the reality is that you are likely going to use all three to find success year after year. Being able to bugle and make cow/calf sounds will definitely help — no matter your chosen plan of attack. One of my favorite calls is an external reed cow/calf Phelps EZ Estrus. It’s almost foolproof for producing realistic cow/calf sounds, and it’s the call I grab first to try to elicit a response from a bull. The new Phelps EZ SUK’R is another fantastic option for hunters who can’t use a mouth diaphragm call or don’t have the time to practice with one. Other companies, including Born and Raised Outdoors and Rocky Mountain Game Calls, also make phenomenal external reed calls. Personally, I have not had a ton of success bugling big mature bulls into range, but a locator bugle is a great option for getting a conversation started with a herd bull. For folks who can’t use a diaphragm, I’d suggest the Phelps Metal Bugle Tube External EZ Bugler. It has an external mouthpiece with a reed that is extremely easy to use to produce locator calls.
The best option for calling elk is to learn to use a diaphragm call. There are hundreds of calls on the market, and picking one that works for you can seem like an overwhelming task. My advice would be to start with a lighter latex and practice until you begin to get the hang of it. Another great piece of advice I was given was to buy several diaphragm calls and try them until you find the option that works best for you. You may initially have to invest a hundred bucks in calls, but in the long run, it will pay off in helping you find the one that works for you. Some of my favorite diaphragm calls are the Phelps Maverick, Phelps AMP Black, Phelps AMP Grey, and the Rocky Mountain Game Calls Black Magic and Reaper. One other note: carry a backup bugle in your truck. It’s easy to walk off and leave a bugle in the woods, and having another one in your truck is highly recommended. (Don’t ask me how I know that.)
Clothing as “gear” has come a long way in the past 10 years. You may not have or need to buy the latest in technical hunting apparel to find success, but a quality clothing system will help you be more comfortable and remain in the field longer. My clothing system for elk hunting can be broken down into the following categories: base layers, mid-layers, outer layers, insulation, and rain gear. Base layers are most often synthetic polyester, merino wool, or a hybrid of the two. Synthetic materials breathe well and dry quickly, but retain some smell over days of use. Merino helps to manage temperature a bit better (insulates when wet), and is antimicrobial, which reduces smell but is slow to dry. A combination of the two is a great option as it breathes, insulates, and dries relatively fast. For early season, warm weather hunts, I like thinner merino or merino blends. I’m less concerned about getting cold from a wet shirt that is slow to dry, and the reduced stench is a bonus. For late September or October hunts, I prefer a synthetic due to the fact that it dries so quickly. A mid-layer top is one of my most important pieces of clothing. I wear it almost all day when elk hunting. I prefer a synthetic mid-layer top with some light insulation that is low bulk, quiet, and I prefer a hood for added warmth in the morning and evening and to keep the sun off my neck midday. Pants should be quiet, durable, move, and stretch as you hike and fit well. There are some fantastic pant options for archery elk hunting. Some of my favorites are the Sitka Ascent Pant (lightest), Sitka Apex Pant (quietest), Stone Glacier DeHavilland Lite (side vent zips), and the Fjallraven Keb Agile. Insulation layers are almost always required for an archery elk hunt in the Rockies. A packable down puffy jacket has the best weight/warmth ratio, but you have to keep it dry. I never leave my truck without a packable down insulated jacket. I also have grown accustomed to packing a pair of down over pants for backpack hunting. Cold weather in September is not uncommon, and for as little as 7 oz, I can handle any storm. Down pants are great for evenings around camp, glassing or can bolster the temperature rating of your sleeping bag if it gets unusually cold. Lastly, I also pack a light, packable set of rain gear. I don’t do a lot of hiking in them, but it’s common to ride out an afternoon thunder bumper in the high country while elk hunting. I would err on the side of saving weight and packability and worry less about durability here. Also, don’t forget a pair of lightly insulated gloves and a beanie to ward off cool early morning and late evening air. My clothing system is listed below.
Elk are reliant on water, so there will almost always be good running water or ponds and catchments in the terrain you are hunting. In saying that, you have to treat your water to make it safe to drink. If there is clear running water in the area I am hunting, I do not carry a filter. In those cases, I carry a SteriPen to purify drinking water. I have also used the two part drops made by Aquamira with great success. As a backup, I also pack a number of Aquatabs.
Over the years, I have used water bladders and hard-sided bottles. The benefit of a bladder is that you tend to drink more often and remain hydrated. The potential downfall of a bladder is that they are prone to leaking. Hard-sided bottles — like the ones that Nalgene makes — are more durable, but I tend to drink less water because they are less accessible. Last year, a new product came to market from Hardside Hydration, which incorporates a hose with a hard-sided bottle. This should offer you the best of both worlds.
Elk hunting is physically demanding, and it’s critical to stay hydrated. I suggest always having a water treatment product and a water bladder or bottles. One of the worst nights I have spent in the elk woods was due to being severely dehydrated. I would also suggest that you test those options well before you leave on a hunt. A leaky bladder can soak the rest of your gear and leave you in a serious pinch.
I’ve always said that beyond your tag and your weapon, quality optics is the next best investment in western big game hunting. For archery elk hunting, a quality set of eight or 10 power binoculars in a chest harness are a must. If the rut is in full swing, you may not need to spend a lot of time glassing, but a pair of binoculars is still required to help you catch the flick of an ear or a tine as a bull approaches. My preference is a set of 10X42 binoculars. A top-tier pair of binoculars from Swarovski, Leica, Zeiss, or even Vortex is an expensive investment but one I think is worth it. Good glass will last for decades, and the advantage they offer in finding big game is immense. Buy the best glass you can afford, and I believe you will never regret it.
Not knowing the range is the number one reason I think hunters miss when bowhunting out West. The terrain is mountainous, and almost every shot is going to be uphill or downhill. An accurate rangefinder that calculates the angle compensation is highly recommended. As a bull approaches, take the time to range the surrounding trees and rocks to ensure you have a good estimate before he walks into sight because as soon as a bull breaks out into your line of sight, you may not have the time to range him. Take several ranges to reference his most likely route beforehand and know those distances before he approaches. Several good options for rangefinders exist. My personal favorites are the Leupold Full Draw 5 and the Leica Rangemaster 2400.
Elk see well and hear well but are very sensitive to scent. You cannot beat an elk’s nose, so don’t even try. I always have a full bottle of wind checker in my bino harness and a couple for backup in the truck. Be liberal with using it to check the wind, and if the wind is questionable, find another route or a different set up. Along these same lines, Scent Killer clothing wash is a good idea before leaving and field wipes are nice to wipe the sweat off from time to time, but you still can’t beat an elk's sense of smell. Check the wind and play the wind…Always! I use Rocky Mountain Game Calls Wind Checker.
There are a few items in my elk kill kit list that may not be on a typical list for other species. I like to carry two knives: one with a replaceable scalpel blade and one fixed blade. The replaceable blades are nice for cutting an elk’s thick hide, especially along the backbone up into the neck and back of the head, where the hide is very thick. I also like a replaceable blade knife for caping the head and face. A fixed blade is my preference for skinning and cutting leg joints. In addition to the knives, I carry a small packable saw. I use the saw to cut out the skull cap, which eliminates the need to pack the extra weight of the entire skull if you decide to do a shoulder mount. I have also regularly used the saw to cut shooting lanes while ambush hunting over a wallow or water source. Another item is a good length of cord — both for hanging meat and for tying the bull off to a tree to keep him from sliding down a steep slope. Lastly, I find that in addition to game bags, a sheet of Polycryo is handy for laying elk quarters on in preparation for deboning meat. It keeps the meat clean and weighs very little. Polycro sheets can be bought at your local hardware store in the window covering section. The brand I purchase is made by Frost King. My knife choices are the Goat Knives TUR Carbon Pro or the Argali Carbon Knife, Goat Knives Ibex Mini Replaceable Blade Knife, or the Tyto Finisher Ti Replaceable Blade Knife. The saw I like is the Griz Saw by Outdoor Edge. Caribou Gear has been my game bags of choice, and I pack four High Country Carnivore bags and one smaller loose meat bag. My preference for cord is Zpacks Z-Line Slick Cord. It has very high tensile strength and does not bind like paracord might when pulled across tree bark.
Several years ago, I headed out on a 10-day backpack elk hunt in Wyoming with a basic satellite messenger that I could use to send an “I’m okay” message home every night. It worked, but the feeling of uneasiness that I had about not being able to get messages in return left me on edge. There are several options for two-way communication now, and for about $70 a month, you can get unlimited messaging and provide yourself the peace of mind associated with being able to keep in contact with loved ones at home. Two of the best options are the Garmin InReach Mini 2 and the Zoleo Satellite Communicator. Both simply Bluetooth to your phone and allow you to download their messaging app that functions just like your text messenger. You can send and receive messages, and both have an SOS function should you find yourself in a dire situation. You can also obtain weather forecasts. Both allow you to activate them on a monthly basis. The Garmin allows you to use the device itself to message should an issue occur with your phone leaving it unusable. The Zoleo is the more economical choice for both the initial purchase and monthly plan. Most of the elk country throughout the West has limited, or no cell coverage, and a satellite communicator is one the best investments in gear I have made. Take any added stress out of the process and allow yourself to be solely focused on the task at hand by having the means to communicate with home and search and rescue.
Base Top: Sitka Core lightweight Hoody or Stone Glacier Chinook Crew or Hoody
Base Bottom: Sitka Merino Core Lightweight Boxer or Outdoor Research Echo Boxer
Midlayer Top: Sitka Core Heavyweight Hoody or Stone Glacier Helio Hoody
Pant: Sitka Ascent, Sitka Apex, or Fjallraven Keb Agile
Down Jacket: Stone Glacier Grumman or Sikta Kelvin Lite Down Jacket
Down Pants: Stone Glacier Grumman or Western Mountaineering Flight Pant
Rain Gear: Sitka Dewpoint jacket/pant, Stone Glacier M5 jacket/pant, Outdoor Research Helium jacket/pant